Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in – Evelyn Waugh
Most of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites and some of them plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral – George Orwell
Wodehouse is back on TV (BBC 1, Sundays), in the form of the Blandings stories about Lord Emsworth, his fearsome sister Constance, the ambitious secretary Baxter and Emsworth’s prize sow, The Empress.
Those of you not already aux fait with the Wodehouse oeuvre will have gathered just from the above, that this is pretty lightweight stuff, completely devoid of any pretensions to social commentary or psychological insight. It’s pure entertainment and – more to the point – pure escapism.
Wodehouse’s published writings began in the very early years of the last century and continued right up to his death in 1974, when he left an unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Sunset at Blandings. But (as Orwell pointed out) the world of Wodehouse was outdated even by the 1920’s: Emsworth was a throwback to a bygone Edwardian age and Bertie Wooster really died in the corner of some foreign field round about 1915.
Wodehouse’s reputaton has by now just about about recovered from his appalling misjudgement when, living in France in 1941 and having been interned by advancing German forces, he agreed to broadcast some lighthearted “chats” on Nazi radio. These were apolitical in tone and content, but naturally laid him open to the charge (made most forcefully by ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) that he’d been a willing tool of Goebbels’ and had agreed to broadcast in order to get himself released. George Orwell considered Wodehouse to have acted like a bloody idiot, but wrote an essay (In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, February 1945) that strongly defended him against charges of treachery. It turns out that the British authorities reached the same conclusion, but decided not to tell him, and Wodehouse spent the rest of his days brooding in self-imposed exile in America.
When considering what was undoubtably a dreadful error on Wodehouse’s part, it is worth remembering that he was the creator of Sir Roderick Spode, a thoroughly unpleasant bully and demagogue who turns up in several of the Wooster stories, described as “founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the Blackshorts.” Not conclusive proof perhaps, but pretty persuasive evidence that Wodehouse had no love of fascism.
But why on earth would any person of even vaguely leftist inclinations actually enjoy these farcical tales of dotty aristocrats, domineering aunts and over-privileged wastrels?
The sheer escapism has a lot to do with it: I know that I am very far from being the only leftie who’s found solace at Blandings Castle and/or the Drones Club when life’s become difficult one way or another. Then there’s the sheer craftsmanship of his plots, and -especially – his use of language.
When Bertie Wooster describes “Aunt calling aunt calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps” you know you’re in the hands of a writer of comic English to rank alongside Wilde and Dickens. Which, come to think of it, may be why BBC 1’s effort on Sunday was just slightly disappointing: the irreplacable descriptive and narrative voice of Wodehouse himself was missing.